"Facebook isn't going away, neither is Twitter, nor Tumblr. No offense to Tumblr but in a perfect world, we wouldn't have any of these platforms. In a perfect world everyone would have their own piece of the web that they own entirely".
So wrote Anthony De Rosa, Proposition Leader at Reuters Media, in January.
"We live in a world of Digital Feudalism," he continued. "The land many live on is owned by someone else, be it Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr, or some other service that offers up free land and the content provided by the renter of that land essentially becomes owned by the platform that owns the land."
David Carr, reflecting on this in the New York Times, pointed out a big contrast, at least theoretical: $50 billion is how has been valued Facebook, Twitter is estimated by someone at $10 billion, Tumblr and Quora are on the same way and the Huffington Post will be sold for $315 million to AOL, within the largest merger ever of the American business history. By contrast, most of the value behind these names was created by people working for free, he said.
(If we face a 2.0 bubble destined to burst, however, it's another story).
There are two main issues to consider.
One the one hand, we are getting used to thinking of content as a commodity, as it can be had for free through sharing on social networks (by the way, bare in mind that, as Carr underlined, advertising, "the mother's milk of all media" does not differentiate between old-media companies and social and amateur media).
On the other hand, news website like the Huff Post have built a significant part of their value on the contribution of bloggers and commenters, working for no other compensation than the huge audience the site reaches, as well as aggregation services.
"It will be interesting to see how the legions of unpaid bloggers at The Huffington Post react to the merger with AOL. Typing away for an upstart blog would seem to be a little different from cranking copy for AOL, a large American media company with a market capitalization of $2.2 billion," Carr argued.
Well, bloggers had reacted. And they are not all happy.
As LSDI reported, some of them created a Facebook group called "Hey Arianna, can you spare a dime?". "AOL gave you $315 million: we're asking you to give a little back to the unpaid writers who built the Huffington Post", says the group's description. They refer to Arianna Huffington's book on the endangered American working middle-class and ask her to remain faithful to the principles she professed and get them compensation for their work.
The page has more than 800 fans.
The debate spread through the web.
Paul Gillin on Newspaper Death Watch noticed that bloggers are forced by no one to write for free and the compensation is in having their bylines in a website with so wide audience. He quoted Lauren Kirchner, who, writing on Columbia Journalism Review, said "The Huffington Post's business model is perfectly legal. But is it right?"
It's not a new practice, however, as Gillin noted. In the pre-internet era, even The New York Times was used to underpaid freelancers who just wanted their name in The New York Times.
Huffington Post's spokesman Mario Ruiz answered critics in a note published on Poynter, saying that HuffPost strongly believes journalists have to be paid for their work and in fact it has 143 paid editors and writers. It is different, however, for the bloggers and people who post their opinions for free, as the vast majority understand the value of having a platform that reaches a very large audience. "People blog on HuffPost for free for the same reason they go on cable TV shows every night for free - because they are passionate about their ideas, want them to be heard by the largest possible audience, and understand the value that that kind of visibility can bring", he said.
Jeremy Daniel on Memeburn also tackled the subject, starting from the reflections on the "Huffington's Plunder" that Chris Hedges raised on Truthdig, writing that "Any business owner who uses largely unpaid labor, with a handful of underpaid, non-union employees, to build a company that is sold for a few hundred million dollars, no matter how he or she is introduced to you on the television screen, is not a liberal or a progressive."
Daniel reported also that comedian Stephen Colbert announced the creation of a new site called Colbuffingtonrepost.com, which "has everything you love about the Huffington Post, because it's the Huffington Post with a new border around it that says the Colbuffington Repost." Colbert is making the site available for sale at US$316-million, and if it's sold, he guarantees to give Arianna the same cut as she's giving him, i.e nothing.
As Douglas Rushkoff wrote on the Guardian, AOL's purchase of HuffPost feel so strange to many of those who have contributed to the site over the years because "it feels like the turning over of something a bit more personal."
"We write for HuffPo for free and we do it without resentment," he said. "The sense was always that we were writing for Arianna. Yes, there are compensating benefits but it was a very soft quid pro quo based in a sense of shared purpose, and participation in a community beyond the mega-media-corporate sphere of influence."
"We're not really witnessing the demise of HuffPo - just the demise of the justifications for writing for free. I would do it for Arianna. I won't do it for AOL," Rushkoff concluded.
The debate is intricate. As Italian author Alessandro Manzoni said, "Ai posteri l'ardua sentenza" - "posterity will judge."